(A slight departure from my usual posts…)
Like many others out there, my relationship with food and fitness has been a long and complicated one. I was a slim kid who quickly gained weight during adolescence, topping out at 240 pounds at the start of my freshman year of college. I owe many of those pounds to bags of potato chips inhaled in front of the television, washed down by tall glasses of soda. I also owe many of them to Popeye’s, where I held my first job for just shy of three months, gladly plowing through a fried chicken meal during each grueling shift.
I largely ignored my weight as a teenager, hiding behind baggy t-shirts and wide-leg jeans (those were easy to come by, thanks to the late-90s trend of tent-sized clothing). But, as a wide-eyed college freshman in the far-away land of Rhode Island, I became starkly aware of my weight in the aisle of scales at Bed Bath & Beyond. So, with my newfound awareness of my near-obesity I vowed never to see those numbers again. I began working out with a friend four days a week, subsisting on rabbit food and vague substitutions for snacks I’d grown to love as a child. And it paid off handsomely: by the end of that school year I had dropped 50 pounds.
After the initial excitement with Olean-laced Pringles and the knee-wrecking stair climber wore off, I continued to lose weight. My mother and grandmother feared that I had developed manorexia; yet, I knew I loved food too much to starve myself. Thanks to a class assignment in my nutrition class, though, I learned that I had been consuming just 1,600 calories a day—far less than someone my age and activity level needed to maintain my 160-pound frame.
Even as my Oprah-like weight fluctuations were just beginning, I discovered an odd reality about my body. Verging on becoming underweight, I still struggled with body fat. Even as I was buying jeans four sizes smaller than the year before, I still required loose fit pants—that small pile of jeans in the back of the store available only in last decade’s colors. In some cases, that lowly pile of old man pants disappeared altogether once skinny jeans came on the scene. Yes, Gap, I’m talking about you.
Not only did I struggle with body fat, it seemed that doctors and trainers both struggled to figure out just how much of it was in my body. I’ve been pinched with calipers, held and stood atop electric body fat monitors, and even convinced my doctor to perform a bone density scan to measure fat percentage. Depending on who you asked, between 17 and 34 percent of my body consisted of fat (the highest number was detected by the bone density scanner, idealized as one of the more accurate measures of body fat). Based on the images from that bone density scan, it was evident that most of the fried chicken I ate as a teenager had latched onto my thighs.
In the years since college I joined an array of gyms, attempting a variety of workout styles that never seemed to earn the results I hoped for. I aimlessly jumped from elliptical trainer to weight machines, seldom sweating to prove my efforts. I worked out in Bally Total Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, Gym X, Gold’s Gym, and, more recently, the recreation center at Texas A&M University. I’ve even worked with personal trainers at each one of them, hoping they’d point out that magic workout that would get me the bigger arms and six-pack abs that, together, are the holy grail of male fitness.
And just as I was starting to wonder what else I could do in the gym to fix my pear-shaped plight, my health began to go awry. In 2011 I was diagnosed with Barrett’s Esophagitis, a condition that essentially causes the cell structure of my lower esophagus to mimic those of stomach cells as a way of dealing with the increased acid my body produces. While relatively little is known about Barrett’s, I have found evidence pointing to my history of asthma as a contributing factor. Now, along with a daily medication to control the acid reflux I have been given a list of food rules that include eating smaller portions, avoiding heartburn triggers like soft drinks and fried foods, and avoiding eating at least 2 hours before bedtime. I could also stand to avoid caffeine as well, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I became the only person in history to hurt himself doing a yoga class. Just before Christmas last year I attended a group yoga class, hoping to learn some stretches to overcome my notoriously tight hamstrings. Instead, it led to an MRI and a diagnosis of L5-S1 degenerative disc disease. For more than five months I lived with near-constant pain, struggling daily to get dressed or stand still, let alone exercise. Thankfully, with the help of physical therapy I have learned how to adapt my movements to avoid aggravating my lower back and, today, can get back in the gym pain free.
Still, something wasn’t right. By many accounts, I have maintained a relatively healthy weight as an adult and even managed to stay at least lightly active. So, why the thunder thighs and flabby abs?
A trainer recently said something to me that was completely enlightening to my experience. “You can’t expect to work hard in the gym four or five hours a week, eat like crap the other 164 hours, and expect amazing results,” he said. “It just won’t happen.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, has ultimately been my problem. I have been spending 97 percent of my days wondering why the 3 percent of time I spend exercising hasn’t been enough.
Here’s where it gets complicated. I know now that I should be eating more lean meats, more vegetables, and fewer “white” foods (bread, potatoes, rice, and sugar). Yet, I allow myself to be talked into eating and drinking things I know are bad for me, only to feel guilty afterward. I find it near impossible to avoid the tray of pastries at the office…or pretty much any food that’s offered to me for free. Sweet tea, chocolate chip cookies and Starbucks Frappuccinos are my kryptonite. To make matters worse, I eat out at least seven times a week.
I am only now beginning to face the fact that food is both my enemy and my friend. Food is meant to be a fuel for my body; instead, it has become a hobby. I look forward to my next meal the way I look forward to meeting up with friends or the way I look forward to my next vacation.
Something’s gotta give. And, unbuttoning my pants can no longer be an option.